One of Bush's standard lines is that Iraq policy shouldn't be made by politicians in Washington (other than him) and that he will "listen to the Generals." Of course this isn't true, as a long list of generals starting with Eric Shinseki, who tried to get Bush/Cheney and Congress to understand they didn't have the forces to do what they wanted in Iraq, and ending with former Iraq Commander General George Casey who was replaced by General Petraeus, and Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who were essentially demoted recently, could testify. But what are the generals saying now?
General Casey, now the Army Chief of Staff, was the architect of the Iraq conflict from mid 2004 until the end of 2006. His prescription was to try to reduce the US combat role and concentrate on training Iraqis to provide their own security. This was the plan Bush rejected in late 2006 when he decided to escalate and replaced Casey with counter-insurgency expert General David Petraeus. But according to the Thursday Wall Street Journal, the once vilified Casey has now seen his influence return under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as it is clear within the Pentagon that the "surge" has not accomplished much and cannot long be continued. Casey opposes extending tours of duty beyond the current 15 months and would like them scaled back, if possible. Casey's views are evidently shared by much of the Washington brass. Not only are the services losing many talented young officers, according to the Journal, because of the strain of multiple deployments, but recruitment levels, especially among black youth are down. If the armed services are to remain flexible and effective, the brass feel, the Iraq commitment must be scaled back. Marine General Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs until his term ends on September 30, an original opponent of the surge before publicly backing it, has also called for steep troop reductions next year.
General Petraeus is known to favor keeping the surge going for as long as possible and reducing troops only to the extent necessary to avoid overtaxing them.
So what we have here is the generals at home, who are responsible for the overall health of the American military, now willing to speak out and urging that the number of troops in Iraq be scaled back, to as few as half what we have now. The Defense Secretary, who was a member of the Baker-Hamilton Commission before his appointment, was also no great fan of the surge. Meanwhile Petraeus, installed by Bush as his savior, is pleading not to have the troops withdrawn when we are on the brink of success, although he acknowledges that insurgencies can take 10 years to defeat.
Obviously there is a good deal of positioning going on here, as there is among the politicians, to avoid taking blame for Iraq and for the poor state of readiness in the event of some near-term challenge. But it is ironic that Casey's pullback to bases and concentrate on training seems to be reemerging as the leading alternative to continuing the surge.
So what should we do? We should remember Georges Clemenceau's WWI dictum that "War is too serious to be left to the generals." We have a system of civilian control, not a military junta. While input from the generals is important, it is politicians who must make the call. In addition to their constituents, who oppose the war by large margins, they should also listen to those concerned with the long-term health of the military, not those trying to validate their chosen strategy by continuing warfare that is not facilitating reconciliation. Certainly the troops themselves, the ones risking their lives every day, seem to be less than enthusiastic about the current policy.
If the Dems can just bring themselves to continue calling for a scaling back of the war and rotations out (but not in) to Iraq next year, it would seem that there might soon be a majority for just such a position.